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ATP Tour

Federer – A fan’s view, 4 years on

Saqib Ali




Andrew Burton

In February 2014 Courtney Nguyen, now @WTAInsider but then a blogger with Sports Illustrated, had an eMail conversation with me that was published as “A Fan’s View – Roger Federer.”

As well as looking back at my origin story as a fan (playing hooky from work to watch Federer play Gaudio in the 2004 ATP Year End Championships in Houston) and reminiscence of the dominant years, Courtney asked me to look forward to the rest of 2014 and beyond. Was the back injury sustained by Federer in 2013 the reason for his slump? Would a bigger racquet (Fed had just made the switch to a 98” frame) pay dividends? Would Federer be able to stay competitive with the bigger guys?

Brad Delong, one of the top economics bloggers, talks often about “marking his beliefs to market” – in other words, testing your forecasts against actual outcomes to allow you to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. So here we go. What did I say then, what turned out, and how do my predictions look with hindsight? I assume 2013 was a rough year for Federer fans. Watching him as much as you do, which match was the most surprising to you?

Burton: As you know, I’m a tennis stats geek: I’ve spent a lot of time charting players’ career arcs, and Federer, bless his heart, is following a well-trodden path. So I wasn’t stunned by 2013. I was disconcerted by his increasing physical fragility.

No single match was the most surprising. There were some early-round losses in the first part of 2013 to mid-level players — for example, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Kei Nishikori in Madrid — which seemed odd. The loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in the second round was a surprise, but I thought Stakhovskhy red-lined all match and took his chance when it came.

2018 view: Federer’s “increasing physical fragility” showed up later in 2014, most notably when he injured his back at the end of a dramatic London WTF semi final against Stan Wawrinka, then was unable to take the court for the final against Novak Djokovic. Federer then scrambled to get fit for the Davis Cup final against France in Lille. He was dominated by Gael Monfils in a straight sets loss on day 1, but Wawrinka’s own win and leadership in their Saturday doubles against Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet set the table for a tie clinching singles win over Gasquet on Sunday. Even in that match Federer apparently told his captain, Severin Luthi, that he might not be able to finish.

Federer went largely injury free in 2015, but 2016 was a different story – a horror story for Federer fans. A freak knee injury after the Australian Open required surgery; illness kept him from returning to the court in Miami; Federer picked up a back strain before Madrid, perhaps compensating for instability in his knee; then after choosing to miss Roland Garros, breaking a 64 tournament streak at the Grand Slam level, Federer played a below par grass court season, capped by a symbolic fall to the turf in a final set semi final loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.

Federer chose to end his season then, and approached the 2017 Australian Open hoping to be fully competitive by mid year. As we know, he was quite competitive before then. But physical fragility is still a big part of the picture: Federer skipped the 2017 clay season entirely, and his summer North American hard court swing was affected by another back strain, this time in the Montreal final against Sascha Zverev. Federer had to pull out of Cincinnati, then gritted his way through the first four rounds at the US Open before Del Potro beat him in the quarter finals.

Increasing physical fragility? I’ll mark that at 75% correct. Toward the end of last season Federer said his back injury was the primary reason for his slump. Do you buy that?

Burton: After the disappointing loss to Stakhovsky, Federer decided to play two clay-court tournaments and test out a new racket. He played the Hamburg quarterfinal against Florian Mayer on a cold evening, and by the end of the second set Federer was just spinning his serves in and I knew his back had gone again. This was the fourth time Federer’s back had given out in tournaments in 18 months (Doha 2012, Wimbledon 2012 and Indian Wells 2013 were the others). Now it seemed like a chronic problem.

I’m pretty sure he thinks the back injury had a lot to do with disappointments, especially at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Apart from matches where he was clearly feeling a twinge, it affected his training schedule and tournament preparation, and likely his confidence and match game plans as well. I know he feels that when he couldn’t trust his back he couldn’t trust his ability to defend, so he feels that he wasn’t ready to play his best tennis.

It’s a strong argument, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Even with a clean bill of health, these days Nadal is a prohibitive favorite every time he plays Federer, and I’d argue that Federer is now the underdog against a healthy Murray or Djokovic. Unless he can bring something new to the table against these players — um, bigger hitting with a bigger stick? — the five or six years he gives away to the top guys will continue to kill him. You mentioned the bigger racket. Is that the change that will keep him competitive with the top guys?

Burton: It’s a racket, not a magic wand! Suppose we can turn the dial back to 2010: Federer is probably 50:50 vs. Murray and Djokovic on all surfaces, but a huge underdog against Nadal on clay and an underdog against Nadal on outdoor hard courts.

I read that one of Nadal’s coaches recently said something to the effect that Federer had the ability to turn the dial up to 11 for passages of play, but that he couldn’t sustain that level and could drop down to a 7, while Nadal and Djokovic knew how to maintain a consistent 8 or 9 out of 10 level of play. That sounds right, with Murray a half notch behind.

The five-to-six-year age gap doesn’t keep getting bigger, but I think there’s a big difference between being a 33-year-old playing 27- or 28-year-olds and a 29-year-old playing 23- or 24-year-old opponents.

2018 view: I discussed the physical issues above, so let’s take a look at the rivalries with the other Big 4 players. At the time of my conversation with Courtney, Federer had beaten Murray in Melbourne then lost decisively to Nadal in the semifinals. Over the next two years Federer would compile a 4-0 record against Murray, dropping no sets. He played Nadal once, at his home tournament in Basel in 2015, winning a three set final. And he played Novak Djokovic a staggering 14 times (not counting the London WTF walkover), winning 6 matches and losing 8 – but importantly, Djokovic won all 5 of the biggest matches, 3 Grand Slam Finals (Wimbledon 2014 and 2015, US Open 2015), a Grand Slam semi final (Australian Open 2016) and the London World Tour Finals in 2015.

Strikingly, Federer hasn’t played either Murray or Djokovic since he hurt his knee and had surgery two years ago. He did, of course, face Nadal on a memorable night in Melbourne in January 2017, one of 4 victories to no defeats that year – none of them on clay, as Federer himself has wryly observed.

How does my prediction look with 4 years hindsight? 33% correct, I’d say. Federer has clearly been an underdog against a healthy Djokovic, but is 9-0 against the other two. Based on what you saw in Australia, what are your expectations this year? Is he back?

Burton: Federer played well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray, but Nadal was another story (as usual!). If all the top ATP players stay healthy, I don’t expect Federer to be one of the top two players. So in that sense, I don’t expect Federer to come “back” as he did in 2011-2012 (and you’ll remember I did call that shot early in 2012).

I do expect to see Federer play at the ATP World Tour Finals in November again: Being in the 3-8 range in 2014 is much more likely than one of the top two seeds, provided he stays fit. And there’s another tantalizing prospect: The Swiss have a decent Davis Cup draw, and Stan The Man Wawrinka is Australian Open champion and Swiss top dog.

Roger and Mirka have another child on the way. Federer’s going through his old dorky photos on Twitter. Federer genuinely still seems to have a zest for tennis, and the perspective to know that it’s just a part of life.

2018 view: I was wrong about the seedings at the 2014 London ATP WTFs; Federer did go in as the number 2 seed, but this was substantially due to Nadal ending his season early after dealing with wrist problems and appendix issues. And as mentioned above, my Davis Cup prediction turned out to be accurate.

The comparatively successful 2014 led most observers (including me) to believe that Federer certainly could win one more Grand Slam title to add to his then-total of 17. Three times in succession, he crashed into the rock of peak Novak.

Then came 2017, and early 2018. This Federer fan did not, repeat not see the results – 9 titles (3 Majors), 1 final – coming. But I did expect the zest for tennis, on display at the inaugural 2017 Laver Cup and 2018 Hopman Cup, to continue.

Overall, going to mark this as 33% correct as well. To sum up, 75%, 33% and 33% – I probably should keep my day job.

When I talked to Courtney in 2014, I was very influenced by a superb 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Sokolove, “For Derek Jeter On His 37th Birthday

“[T]he careers of elite athletes, enviable as they may be, are foreshortened versions of a human lifespan. Physical decline — in specific ways that affect what they do and who they are — begins for them before it does for normal people. The athletes themselves rarely see the beginnings of this process, or if they do, either do not acknowledge it or try to fight it off like just another inside fastball. They alter their training routines. Eat more chicken and fish, less red meat. They try to get “smarter” at their sport.

A great many of us, their fans, live in our own version of denial — even in this age of super-slow-motion replay and ever more granular statistical data. We want to think our favorite players have good years left, great accomplishments ahead of them, just as we would hope the same for ourselves.”

Four years on, this Federer fan has been delighted, albeit surprised, at the amount of great accomplishments – with possibly more to come. Perhaps the most important lesson for me has been that evidence based realism – my attempt not to fall into the trap of my own version of denial – can be trumped by genius and a zest for the game. And for those ATP or WTA tennis fans waiting for their own favorite great player to return to competition in full health, good things can come to those prepared to wait.


ATP Tour

Roundtable — ATP Major Showdowns in 2019

Matt Zemek



Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

What is the one ATP matchup you really want to see at the major tournaments in 2019?

Before we begin:

We offered our selections for the WTA matchup we most wanted to see at the 2019 majors in this roundtable at Tennis With An Accent.

You can support our work and our grassroots tennis coverage — tailored to the dedicated tennis fan, not the clickbait-minded casual fan — at this specific link. Tell your tennis-fan friends that TWAA is a destination they can trust for sober, intellectually honest tennis analysis.

Now, on with the show, and the answers to today’s roundtable question:

JANE VOIGT — @downthetee

ATP rivalries have been concentrated at the top for over a decade. Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, or any combination of those three, sell boatloads of tickets and even draw the attention of international celebrities. Their names will never be forgotten. However, tennis marches on, so my 2019 scorecard looks beyond the tried-and-true to the kids, such as Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alex de Minaur for best matchups on the radar.

All four of these rising stars are court-runners, meaning they have not only raw footspeed, but anticipation. I gasped the first time Tiafoe dug out a dribbling drop shot. His takeoff speed looked like top speeds from other competitors. Then de Minaur popped up at the Citi Open in July. His slight build is a big asset, meaning he never says no to a tennis ball coming at him no matter how absurd a return seems. Tsitsipas bloomed in 2018. Shapovalov continued to impress. But for sheer “wow factor,” I say Tiafoe and de Minaur is the hot ticket. The sooner the better, too, which means the Australian Open.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

In contrast to the WTA, the ATP can look forward in 2019 to the continuation of some of the most storied rivalries in the Open Era.

That’s if the top players are healthy – and of course it’s a big if, as Rafael Nadal’s knee injury in New York and Andy Murray’s and Stan Wawrinka’s slow climbs back to full fitness have demonstrated. By October 1, there won’t be a single male Grand Slam champion younger than 30. One of the younger champions, Juan Martin del Potro, has started to emulate other 30+ stars in paring back his schedule.

A few younger players have begun to establish rivalries. Sascha Zverev (21) and Nick Kyrgios (23) have played six times to date, splitting the spoils. We had a first meeting at a Grand Slam between two Generation Felix stars, Denis Shapovalov (19) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (18). (Editor’s Note: Ask Andrew what he means by Generation Felix if you are unsure of the reference. It will be worth your time.) Will that be one of the great rivalries five years from now? Perhaps.

Sorry if this isn’t very imaginative, but I go back to the Big 3 for my two main matchups to watch. After reversing fortune in 2017 against Nadal, Roger Federer hasn’t played his former nemesis once in 2018. Could we hope for some rematches in 2019? If there’s one single match I’d like to see, it’s Nadal versus Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the one player who has consistently threatened – and on one occasion beaten – Nadal in his fortress.

Bring it on, one more time.

MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk

There is not much to say here due to the giant gap that still exists between the top 3 and the rest of the arena, so to speak. The same can be said for quality of play. When the Big 3 play each other, top-quality tennis is much more likely to be produced than in any other matchup not involving them.

Assuming they come into the two weeks not carrying injuries, Djokovic versus Nadal at Roland Garros would be my top priority for 2019. Federer-Djokovic at Wimbledon would be number two (the last two matches they played against each other there were excellent).

If I had to include a match not involving two of the top three, I would go with Juan Martin del Potro versus any of the top three at Wimbledon.

If I were forced to choose a match without any of the top three, I would take an in-form Fabio Fognini at the Australian Open or the U.S. Open versus any of the top members of the Next Gen, the people he enjoys criticizing so much in some of his pressers.

SAQIB ALI — @saqiba

Sascha Zverev versus Novak Djokovic. Zverev will win majors one day, but where will he be in 2019? I would love to see him go up against Djokovic? How quickly will Zverev develop under Ivan Lendl?

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

I also regard Zverev-Djokovic as the match I most want to see at the majors next year. Given Djokovic’s high ranking, it is likely that such a meeting would occur in the semifinals of a major. If it happens in the quarterfinals, so be it, but if it happens in a semifinal, it would probably mean that Zverev will have made his first major semifinal, which would spice up tennis and create fresh hope that the younger generation is ready to make its mark.

Of the eight ATP major finalists in 2018, only one – Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros – is currently younger than 30. Thiem isn’t even 26. Having a 21- or 22-year-old Zverev (he turns 22 in April of 2019) make a major semifinal or final would give tennis a glimpse of the future and offer fans of non-Big 3 players the assurance that the next decade might give rise to a championship-caliber force.

The other reason a Zverev-Djokovic match would crackle: Zverev’s win over a man who, in retrospect, was far from fully healthy in the 2017 Rome final. Zverev is the challenger and the man trying to make his mark, but Djokovic would be playing for revenge.

Djokovic would be a heavy favorite in 2019 should the two men meet, but if they do meet in a major semifinal, the confrontation might give rise to subsequent reunions in 2020 and 2021. It would move forward the story of tennis.

Postscript/addendum: If forced to pick a matchup other than Zverev-Djokovic: Thiem-Djokovic at Roland Garros. A Zverev-Djokovic match would be interesting on any surface.

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ATP Tour

Roundtable – “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Matt Zemek



Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Is the ATP’s suspension of Mohamed Lahyani appropriate – the result, the process, both, or neither?


Tennis authorities have sent a clear message to umpires in the last two weeks: exercise more discretion. Sorry, don’t exercise any discretion. Treat players as human beings. Wait a second, don’t do that. We value your experience. We’ll throw you under the bus as soon as anyone complains about your decisions.

Only the last of these will be heard by chair umpires, and they’ll likely act accordingly.

The ATP’s decision to fine and suspend Mohamed Lahyani after his intervention with Nick Kyrgios may have been the same even if another umpire, Carlos Ramos, hadn’t become embroiled in an even more controversial incident at the end of the tournament.

I doubt it.

You can find fault, if you choose, with either man’s handling of his respective match. Both were hung out to dry, and now we learn that at least one of the officials has been publicly sanctioned.

Their fellow officials will draw the right lessons from this: Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out. Don’t attract controversy.

If you do, be prepared to pay for it. Interpersonal skills and judgement – even occasionally flawed, human judgement – aren’t appreciated.

Get ready for robots in the chair.


Lahyani’s actions with Kyrgios were not appropriate, especially the part where he passionately talked to Nick for an extended period of time (not the part where he — at first — tried to tell him to show better effort). Hence, I see nothing wrong with some type of penalty applied to Lahyani for his actions and do not find the two-week suspension inappropriate.

I do question, however, the timing of the sanction and the entity that made the decision. The incident occurred during the U.S. Open tournament run by the ITF and the USTA, and it took place two weeks ago. One can see it as the ATP doing what the ITF and the USTA should have done expediently at the time.

There is, however, no agreeable way to justify the fact that the ATP itself waited two weeks to pass this suspension. I consider that particularity to be a procedural failure on the ATP’s part.


A hypothetical for your consideration: Arsenal plays Manchester United on August 17. Two and a half weeks later, after two more Premier League games have been played by both teams, the league announces a sanction on one of the referees for a missed call in the Arsenal-Man U match.

The Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants in Week 2 of the NFL football season in the United States. The NFL announces a suspension for a referee who made a bad call in that game, but makes the announcement after Week 4 of the season.

An NBA basketball official makes a terrible mistake in Game 12 of the 82-game regular season. He works a 13th and 14th game but then gets suspended before his 15th game.

This is essentially what tennis did with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani. I personally disagree with a two-week suspension; I thought that relegating Lahyani to doubles matches during the second week of the tournament was punishment enough. Yet, the suspension – a result of a process – is a minor issue compared to the process itself.

This process was — and is — atrocious.

Sports officials don’t need an FBI investigation after they make a mistake. Information and context can be gathered from the relevant parties relatively quickly. People in supervisory roles look at the visual, textual and circumstance-based evidence. They determine how well an official performed. They suspend him or downgrade him or caution him within 36 hours if not 24.

I have had my (basketball) officiating performances graded right after my game ended. I met with the graders in the locker room. They talked to me about what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I needed to improve. It comes with the territory… but the process is not supposed to be prolonged.

Relegating Mo to doubles at the U.S. Open nevertheless meant he was allowed to work matches. Why should a sports official be allowed to work matches when an unresolved situation hangs over his head? What if I made a bad call in a basketball game on Monday but was then allowed to work on Thursday, did the Thursday game, and then was suspended for the next game on Saturday? Why would I have any confidence in the leadership of the officials’ association I worked for? How could I trust the governing body of the sport I was officiating?

I can see the need to wait 24 hours to gather information in situations such as this, but not much more. Workers – that is what chair umpires are – deserve swift resolution of performance-based matters. This is exactly the kind of thing a tennis umpires’ union would be able to address.

I hope umpires get angry and focused enough to band together in the right ways and for the right reasons, especially since they are already underpaid and are being given more work (monitoring serve clocks).

You can approve of the suspension itself yet hate how the ATP carried out this process. You can accept the result yet loathe how the ATP had no sense of timing — none whatsoever — in bringing it about.


Follow Andrew on Twitter: @burtonad

Follow Mert on Twitter: @MertovsTDesk

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ATP Tour

The Roundtable Cup — Davis and Fed and Laver

Matt Zemek



Robert Hanashiro - USA TODAY

If you ruled tennis for 24 hours, how would you arrange or rearrange Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Laver Cup, and related events, either in terms of the calendar, the format of the events, or anything else you feel is important?


With Davis Cup and Fed Cup, my initial changes would be to make the competition format the same for both the men and the women. The differing rules can be confusing, so I would use the format of Davis Cup for both genders. Why? I like the way Davis Cup highlights the doubles rubber and makes it a pivotal moment for winning a tie.

I would also make Fed Cup and Davis Cup into alternate-year events. The new Davis Cup format has retained home and away ties for the qualifying round, but I would bring that back for the final round as well. Neutral locations can be used for the first iteration; the champions earn the honor of hosting the finals the following year. That solves the issue of home ties being in an unresolved location and gives the champions the potential bragging rights of hosting the best team-competition finals.

For an exhibition such as Laver Cup, I would get rid of it with adequate changes to the national competitions. There are enough demands on players with the current schedule. If I had to keep Laver Cup, I would move it to the down period after the Australian Open.


I would consult with the players first, although the question presumes I can proceed at my own discretion.

In scheduling, I would give the priority to Davis Cup and Fed Cup because they have a history (regardless of the format change), whereas Laver Cup and other events like it qualify as “intense” exhibitions in which winning or losing does not matter as much to the players (or to the masses). I would go back to the pre-reform format in Davis Cup (in all aspects), but if I cannot, meaning my hands are forced into some type of modification, I would at least keep the three-day format with the reverse singles intact, which was a characteristic unique to Davis Cup and set the stage for a potentially dramatic weekend.

Laver Cup is a separate category of event (as I mentioned above). I would work with its runners to make the best of it, but in terms of priority, it would come after ATP and WTA Tours, Davis Cup and Fed Cup.


If I ruled tennis for 24 hours, I’d take stock of my kingdom. The first thing I think I’d conclude is that it’s broken into squabbling baronies – more Game of Thrones than the Berlin Philharmonic.

So I’d realize that until we sorted out the whole calendar, and the balance between the demands and opportunities for players, the needs of tournaments, of national organizations and trans-national groups such as the ITF, ATP and WTA, sorting out one question — non-tournament-based competitions like the Fed Cup, Pique (formerly Davis) Cup and Laver Cup —  creates issues elsewhere.

It’s all part of a web. Tug on one strand, another vibrates — or breaks.


As long as money remains the bottom-line goal of sports, in this case tennis, people will expand the number of events in order to increase income. Capitalism might have been unique to the U.S., but its supposed value has circled the globe. Therefore, as long as earnings upstage the value of players and what they bring to tennis, the expansion of the number of tournaments won’t cease. So how do we arrest this cycle?

Tennis needs an overarching body under which are all other bodies in the game fall: ITF, ATP, WTA, Grand Slams, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and expositions such as Laver Cup. Its first job: Limit the season in order to decrease or, at least, stabilize the rash of injuries. Next: Pay players equally, no matter the level of event. Grand Slams pay all players equal amounts. However, outside of them, women are paid substantially less per tournament. Next: Throw out the newly-signed ITF legislation that eliminated home-court advantage in Davis Cup. Use best-of-three format for Davis Cup – fine. But for goodness sake, did you hear the crowds’ roars during the semifinals this past weekend?


Davis and Fed Cup should be held every year, and under their traditional formats, but the demands on ATP players at four different points on the calendar should be considered. My one tweak to Davis Cup: Give the four semifinal nations a reward for playing deep into the previous year’s calendar by giving all of them a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. This would give top ATP singles players a lot of incentive to play the quarterfinal ties each season. Since players are generally fresher early in the season, that idea makes structural sense.

In Olympic years, one could make Davis Cup an eight-team tournament with either no February ties OR, as an alternative solution, putting the quarterfinals in February and the semifinals in April. I would lean toward February quarterfinals and April semis in Olympic years.

Speaking of Olympic years: There should be no Laver Cup in Olympic years. The Laver Cup, if it really does want to be the Ryder Cup of tennis, should be held every other year, just as the Ryder Cup has been. Laver Cup would ideally be held in odd-numbered years to avoid conflicting with the Olympics. Therefore, after Geneva in 2019, the next Laver Cup should be in 2021.

What I would also like to see with Laver Cup: Rotate it through different periods of the calendar year and see if that adjustment can free up new possibilities in the tennis calendar. Late September is a time when a lot of players are worn down. Try something else and see what it can offer.

One specific set of possibilities: In 2021, move the Bercy Masters to February, specifically when the Dubai ATP tournament is normally held. Move Dubai to two weeks before the Australian Open so that the year’s first major is preceded by a 500. Move the ATP Finals to the week vacated by Bercy. Then make Laver Cup two weeks after the ATP Finals, neatly placed between the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup Final.

Have comments about these ideas? I’ll explain mine, and my colleagues will explain theirs if you ask nicely. Catch me at @mzemek.

Briana: @4TheTennis

Mert: @MertovsTDesk

Andrew: @burtonad

Jane: @downthetee

Our site: @accent_tennis

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